RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — With paths to Palestinian statehood blocked, President Mahmoud Abbas is warning he's fast-tracking his retirement and hinting he will announce dramatic policy changes at the United Nations this month, including a more confrontational relationship with Israel's right-wing government.
The 80-year-old leader's comments in recent meetings have unleashed a swirl of questions.
If he is serious, who would succeed him? If he's not, what's his agenda? And would any of it bring the Palestinians closer to statehood as Washington and the rest of the world now appear transfixed by the ongoing war against the Islamic State group, the Iranian nuclear deal and the refugee crisis of the Syrian civil war?
Here is a look at what is shaping up to be a tempestuous fall in Palestinian politics.
Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, holds three top positions — head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, leader of the Fatah party and president of the Palestinian Authority, the West Bank-based autonomy government.
Formally, the PLO chief is the most important, but actual power rests with the authority's presidency.
Abbas told the PLO Executive Committee last week that he won't seek PLO and Fatah leadership positions in upcoming internal elections.
"Now the question is whether he really means it," said Hanan Ashrawi, an Executive Committee member. "I'm afraid the only person who really knows is Abu Mazen."
The PLO parliament, called Palestinian National Council, was initially set to meet in Ramallah on Sept. 14-15 to elect a new Executive Committee. The group is seen as the pool from which his successor could emerge.
However, in a sign of growing disarray, the current Executive Committee met Monday and decided at the last minute to postpone the parliament session, two officials said. The parliament is now to meet sometime before the end of the year — a delay that could weaken Abbas' threats about stepping aside soon.
Fatah holds leadership elections Nov. 29. The party remains powerful despite losing its dominance after the Islamic militant Hamas won parliament elections in 2006 and seized Gaza a year later.
THE EXTENT OF DESPAIR
Driving Abbas is the deep sense of frustration.
He was elected a decade ago on a promise to deliver Palestinian statehood through negotiations with Israel. Hopes were dashed after Benjamin Netanyahu became Israel's prime minister in 2009 and rejected the internationally backed premise that such a state should arise, with some modifications, in the war-won West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.
A mediation mission by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry collapsed in 2014, and the U.S. appears to show little interest in reviving peace efforts amid the Iranian nuclear deal and the war against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.
Abbas' attempts to reconcile with Hamas repeatedly have ended in failure. His alternative strategies of recent years— seeking recognition of a state of Palestine at the United Nations and pressing war crimes charges in the International Criminal Court — have yielded only partial results.
"I can't say he is leaving tomorrow, but all factors are pushing him to leave," said an Abbas confidant, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the president has not shared his feelings publicly.
SKEPTICS AND BELIEVERS
Leading figures in the PLO and in Fatah fall into two camps — those who take Abbas' resignation threats seriously and those who don't.
The skeptics contend that Abbas called internal elections to get rid of critics and shore up the positions of loyalists.
They say Abbas has focused energies on going after those he believes are conspiring against him, allegedly with financial backing from the United Arab Emirates, including the PLO's No. 2 official Yasser Abed Rabbo, former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and an exiled former top aide, Mohammed Dahlan.
He purged Dahlan's supporters from Fatah, briefly froze the bank account of Fayyad's non-governmental organization and removed Abed Rabbo from his PLO position. The three men have denied allegations they are on the UAE payroll.
These are signs that Abbas is consolidating power, not preparing for retirement, said three senior officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they fear political retribution. The announcement that he is sitting out the PLO and Fatah elections is meant to trigger appeals to him to reconsider, they said.
Others disagree. "President Abbas is serious in his steps, he is not acting," said Fatah official Mohammed al-Madani.
THE START OF SUCCESSION?
Abbas' statements ostensibly launch the succession process, though he hasn't said when he might step down as president.
He has not chosen an heir though his top negotiator, Saeb Erekat, and West Bank security chief Majed Farraj have become his closest advisers.
The two men are associated with unpopular policies.
Erekat has been involved since the 1990s in negotiations with Israel that eventually failed. Farraj oversees security coordination with Israel, aimed at keeping Hamas in check.
Former security chiefs Jibril Rajoub and Dahlan also are seen as possible contenders. A wild card is Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouti, who is serving multiple life sentences in Israel, but regularly outscores all rivals in polls.
THE ISRAELI VIEW
The Netanyahu government would view Abbas' retirement with mixed feelings.
Abbas opposes violence against Israel as counterproductive, and it's not clear if a successor would stay the course. At the same time, Netanyahu has tried to discredit Abbas by saying he is not a partner for peace over what he considers the Palestinian leader's unreasonable positions.
Abbas addresses the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 30.
He told PLO leaders that he will declare he is implementing previous PLO resolutions, without going into detail. Those resolutions include potentially explosive moves such as suspending security coordination and rethinking economic ties with Israel.
Much depends on Washington's response. Kerry called Abbas late last week and promised he would make time for Abbas on the sidelines of the General Assembly, while U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon scheduled a meeting of top Mideast mediators on Sept. 30.
The U.S., however, has been cool to a French proposal to set the parameters for future negotiations in a binding U.N. Security Council resolution.
All this leaves Palestinians with a bleak outlook.
"It seems people feel there is no way out," said Ashrawi, the PLO Executive Committee member.
Laub, the AP's bureau chief in Jordan, has covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1987. Daraghmeh has covered Palestinian politics since 1996.
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